Alicia Keys sits before us as a grown woman. And she says it feels damn good. Keys wants every one of us to have this feeling because, according to her, it’s the century of the woman.
Just one look at her receipts and it’s clear that the twenty-first century has been hers: Her debut album, Songs in A Minor, solidified her as a Grammy Award–winning artist in 2001, sending her home with five wins, including Best New Artist. Keys was only warming up. From there she went on to rack up another ten Grammys and a spot in Billboard’s history books as the number one R&B/hip-hop artist in the aughts.
Her creativity hasn’t been limited to songwriting and performing. Between acting, producing and being a judge on The Voice, she’s been a tireless advocate for people with HIV/AIDS through her nonprofit, Keep a Child Alive, and an avid supporter of the arts through her work with The Gordon Parks Foundation. Now, at 38, there’s new music on the way, as well as an autobiography on Oprah Winfrey’s publishing imprint, An Oprah Book. The memoir is aptly titled More Myself: A Journey because Keys has become a woman whose evolution knows no bounds.
For some time she’s spoken to our hearts through song and given us a sound track to the moments in our lives. Who hasn’t blushed at the thought of a teenage love affair? When was the last time you felt on fire?
In 2014 Keys became relatable and inspiring in a new way, blending a family with grace. She and her husband, Swizz Beatz, wed in 2010 and have two beautiful sons: 8-year-old Egypt Kasseem, and 4-year-old Genesis. Beatz also has 12-year-old son, Kasseem Dean, Jr., with ex-wife Mashonda Tifrere. (Dean also has two children from previous relationships.)
Although Keys kept her personal life private for years, initially Tifrere was not so quiet about the hurdles they faced while merging families. After six years of everyone untangling raw emotions in group therapy and mediation, coparenting has taken a turn for the better. Keys even wrote the foreword for Tifrere’s book, Blend: The Secret to Co-Parenting and Creating a Balanced Family, published last year, and in a Good Morning America interview, the two women referred to each other as “life partners.”
Keys is clearly past the drama, which is evident in the way she shines as a wife and mom. Settling into the seat of womanhood will do that. It’s about knowing your path and your purpose, Keys says. It’s knowing when to say, “This is no longer for me,” and claiming the power to search for what is.
This is the Alicia we meet, hair still damp after her cover shoot in New York City’s West Village. Gone are the Lanvin gowns and CheyenneKimora beaded head wraps. Yes, she’s barefaced—why should she put on anything that would dim this grown-woman glow? Sitting down for her Yes, Girl! podcast interview with hosts Cori Murray and Charli Penn, Keys is unfiltered about her journey, the way Swizz loves her and the joy she’s constantly discovering. Listen in.
Charli Penn: Alicia, when did you realize you were a grown-ass woman?
Alicia Keys: The thing that comes to my mind is when I gave birth to Egypt, my first son. I went to visit my mama and my “auntie,” who has known my mother for a billion years. I was introducing her to the baby, and I’ll never forget the first thing she said to me: “Oh, you got your big-girl panties on now.” She was right. Prior to that moment, I would have definitely not had my big-girl panties on. I remember it was like a real transition. I was raised by my mother. She is a single mom and she’s a badass woman. She is so strong. I don’t even know how she’s as strong as she is, and I’m so proud of her. I’m proud of what she’s given to me, and she has always kept it 100 percent funky with me. She gave me a certain sense of groundedness that stuck with me my whole life.
Cori Murray: You’ve already accomplished so much in this lifetime. What are your current dreams?
First I want to be healthy. I want to be healthy, like for real, like spiritually healthy, emotionally healthy. I want my family to be healthy. I want it to be ingrained in all of us, our power and richness and potential. I really want that in the same way I want to feel fulfilled. Not because I have a lot of things or because something went the way I wished it would, but because I’m genuinely fulfilled. So that’s a big wish for me. I want to keep growing. I want to keep exploring the crevices and the places I haven’t yet. You’ve got to try things and see what they’re going to bring you, and one of the things I talk to my son a lot about is really like if the energy is not right, go away. Just because it’s someone you love or just because it’s someone you’re supposed to be cool with, like, if it’s not an inviting energy for you, don’t be there.
Penn: Becoming a wife and mother can awaken different parts of us. What did it teach you about yourself?
Man, becoming a wife and a mother, specifically a mother, really taught me so much. I remember clearly wanting to remove the negative energy around me quickly, and prior to that, I didn’t feel so drawn to do that for myself. But doing it for this new soul made sense to me. And then that evolved into realizing that if it’s not really feeling like the right thing for me…if it’s not feeling really good, I’m not going to do that. I used to say yes to everything. I think I started to learn about boundaries for myself and creating space for myself and allowing there to be an ending. I started to understand the difference of, like, if it’s flowing, it’s flowing. If it’s not flowing, go back tomorrow. It’s okay. You don’t have to force it.
Murray: What role has Swizz played in that?
Swizz is a very spontaneous spirit and soul. I think he gave me a lot of that intel, too. I was like, “Oh, I can go to dinner? Let’s go to dinner. Yeah. I can stop and go to dinner.” It was that type of awakening, which sounds kind of ridiculous now to me, but I didn’t understand boundaries. I didn’t understand how to claim my own space. And now as a mom, I also understand that as much as I love my babies—they’re so amazing and I really do want to spend every minute with them—but I also know that I have to have space for myself too. And I’ve got to tell them, “I love you so much, and I know you want me to do this with you right now, but what I need to do is take a nap or read a book or have some quiet time because I’ve done everything you asked me to do and I need a little space now.” So it’s cool. That is probably my biggest lesson, just doing what feels really good. Like, I know right away if it feels like I want to leave for it. Do I want to leave for a whole week and have to figure out who’s going to make sure my kids are good and make sure everything’s running while I go do it? Does it really feel like it’s important? Because if it is, I’m going, and my kids will say, “You got to go to work again?” like they say to every mom, and I’ll say, “Yeah. We got to bring light to the world.” You know?
Obviously relationships take work.
Penn: It’s also inspiring the way you two have worked to blend your family successfully.
Thank you, thank you. We are a beautiful blended family. I’m super proud of all of us. I think one of the things that we talk about a lot is just we’re so quick to find the negative in everything. We’re so quick to just latch on to it and hold on to it and never let it go, and it’s a really beautiful thing to see the opposite side of that and to witness it in a genuine way and experience it. I think we just don’t get to see enough of it, and there’s plenty of it. There are plenty of people who have new families and are then able to bring their entire families together. Whatever’s natural, you know? It’s just a natural vibe. You can get to know each other and actually create sisterhood, create understanding. I just don’t think we get to see it a lot, or at least it’s not featured, even in the media. You do something superpositive and the media’s not paying attention to that. It’s wild, wack. We are really proud of it. Our kids are flourishing. They’re beautiful. And it’s a constant process for us. We talk. We support one another. We build. Sometimes we’re like, “Man, what about this? Did you…How are you handling this? How are you handling that over there? Is that going like this?” You know? And we’re connecting, so it’s a beautiful thing.
Penn: It seems like a healing kind of love for you.
Absolutely. Because, you know, obviously relationships take work. All relationships do. You know what I mean? And when you want it, and you want to do the work, you can. So it’s a beautiful thing, and I’m definitely, definitely proud of where we are and where we’re going, you know? Our kids are dope.
Penn: What other sides of Alicia will we get to know better with your upcoming new music?
The most powerful thing is that I’m getting to know myself, and I am loving every side of myself. I’m not so quick to be concerned about the fact that this part is a little bit jagged or rugged. Or this part might be a little bit, you know, super raw. Or this part might be a little bit down or sad. I don’t have to pretend like I’m not all those things. I don’t have to be in the perfect mood or do all the right things. I can just be off and I can also be my greatest self. I can be the mixed-up emotions that we all are. So I’m just loving getting to know all of me and then being able to express that in these different musical facets. I would never have been able to do it before now, because I didn’t have my big-girl panties on the way that they are on, securely, now. I’m allowed to have cute panties and not-so-cute panties. Whatever! I’m just loving being good with that.
To read the full cover story, featuring Alicia Keys, pick up the June issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands Friday. Listen to Alicia’s interview on Yes, Girl! podcast above.
Photography by JD Barnes – @jdthecombo
Styled by Marielle Bobo – @mariellebobo
Hair by Nai’vasha using Mizani/The Wall Group – @naivashaintl
Makeup by Dotti using Dior Beauty/Statement Artists – @therealistdotti
Manicure by Dawn Sterling using Swarowski crystals/Statement Artists – @nailglam
Set Design by Christopher Stone/Halley Resources – @stonecoldprops